Along highways in the Southwest, siren signs proclaim the Cities of Gold Casino in Santa Fe. The marketing slogan is: "Where the locals play." I passed a half-dozen billboards trumpeting that boast. Each one was located in a hardscrabble neighborhood where kids play in dirt yards, deceased cars are rusty planters for weeds, and jobless denizens, mostly Chicanos and Indians, hang out under scraggly shade trees. You'd think gamblers who spot Cities of Gold signs would look around and conclude that if the locals are bellying up to the tables, the only thing they're winning is grinding poverty.
In Tierra, N.M., I braked our camper and asked Manuel Gomez, who was leaning on one of the casino's signs, if he was local and if he threw the bones at Cities of Gold. "Yeah, local," said Gomez, a truck driver whose family has been in New Mexico for a hundred years. "Casino? No. That's for crazy people, fools and tourists who don't know better."
In other states, such as South Dakota and Louisiana, mini-casinos huddle alongside truck stops at Interstate exits. In North Sioux City, S.D., signs invite: "Cash your paycheck here." Hell, who needs to pay the mortgage?
Along a lonely stretch of I-49 heading south toward New Orleans, the come-on at the Double Eagle Casino is "Get lucky and eat great Louisiana cooking." For the record, the gastronomic offerings were excellent. The gaming room was seedy.
America's growth industry is the casino business. Riverboat casinos vie with barges and ships for space on the Mississippi. Cruise ships, including many that go nowhere except just outside U.S. waters, crowd ports and dodge state and federal oversight of their gambling salons. They also ante no cut to the taxman.
Damn near every Indian tribe, asserting the blessings of a warped interpretation of "sovereignty," has erected a gaming emporium; much of the hard-to-trace cash bets goes to non-Indian operators, many of whom have had ties to organized crime.
When, on my family's 7,000-mile tour of America in July and August, we stopped in Montana at the Little Big Horn memorial, I overheard a park ranger joking with tourists, saying: "If Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull had wanted to make their victory permanent, they should have opened casinos like the tribes are doing today. They'd still own the West."
Where once we had factories and mills dotting the landscape, there are now land-based casinos, ranging from the garish monstrosities of Las Vegas to the gas station back rooms. Paul Doocey, editor of Casino World, told me that, due to the mushrooming of the tiny roadside joints, it's impossible to keep track of the number of betting parlors. However, Americans will lay down the best part of a trillion dollars this year at casinos. It's a booming economy. Cannibalistic, true, but undeniably the 21st-century American Success Story.
As for the rest of the American economy, people are rolling snake eyes. In desperation, they're drawing to inside straights. Their chips are always on the red when the little roulette ball hits black. Here's some of what I saw:
Gordon Christensen's Wyoming roots go back to the 1800s. He's a woodsman with a world-class beard, earning part of his living maintaining two agricultural reservoirs high in mountains near Sheridan, just south of the Montana border.
And, Christensen is a drywall finisher. He'd rather be a rancher. That's just a dream, or a memory, for many natives of Wyoming nowadays. Driving up gravel roads toward the picturesque little town of Story, Christensen explained: "I call them the rich bastards. Republicans mostly. Dick Cheney's crowd. This state is very Republican," he says waving out the window at cloned McMansions dotting the sides of foothills. "They come here, buy up the ranches, completely block access to the face of the mountains. Hell, what they do is make the mountains their private playgrounds. Those mountains belong to all of us."
It's worse than just who stakes a claim on the scenery. Christensen's family once owned a large ranch, built over generations by hard work. Economics -- primarily the soaring values and costs that followed from the "rich bastards'" invasion -- forced Christensen's family to sell.
"Ranchers and farmers, the real ranchers and farmers, can't make it any longer," he says. "They have to work day jobs in order to afford the ranch. And ranching is a full-time job. People just give up."
In Yellowstone Park, the buffalo still roam. Indeed, the last continuously wild herd can be found at the park. The bisons' favorite pastime, other than grazing, is joining the traffic on the park's roads, much to the glee of kids and adults alike.
So, it should be no surprise that the Bush administration -- which wants to despoil Yellowstone by turning over pristine land to George's and Dick's oil and gas buddies -- doesn't have a problem with slaughtering the shaggy critters.
Amy Zipperer, who staffs a Buffalo Field Campaign table at Tower Fall in Yellowstone, recently got bad news. "There were 231 bison killed," she said. "And your taxes paid for it."
The Yellowstone herd migrates into Montana each spring to pursue its grazing on vast expanses of public land. The bison annoy that state's contingent of rich bastards, who want to control the near-endless vistas -- don't forget, that land is your land, that land is my land -- for their own commercial purposes. In very Republican style, Montana's elite get the federal government to pony up about $3 million a year to fund a slaughter. With choppers and ATVs, the hunters descend on the herd.
"Meat from only 10 percent of the animals could be accounted for," Zipperer said. "That means, most of the carcasses were left to rot."
A bill to halt the federal funding failed by only 21 votes this summer. "I cried," Zipperer said.
The big news in Rapid City, S.D., this summer was the shuttering of another large local employer, a Spiegel call center. More than 250 jobs will be shipped offshore.
The big news for Dee Sanders, an 18-year-old waitress at a Tex-Mex restaurant near Tyler, Texas -- a speck in the flat nothingness east of Dallas -- was that she had to drop out of college. "I have to work to go to school," she said. "And the only jobs anyone can get are ones like this. Don't believe all that you hear. A lot of people in Texas could live without George Bush."
An hour or so drive from Sacramento, Calif., in the hamlet of Lincoln, multimillion-dollar houses are spreading faster than the state's wildfires. "It's all growth from outside," lamented Ernesto DiGiordano, an investment counselor who camped next to me at Yellowstone. "It's new money. The people in Lincoln can't afford these homes."
DiGiordano contended there is no real value underlying the luxury houses. "The economy is artificial, and the bubble has to break one of these days. When it does, those of us who are the real Lincoln residents will pay the cost."
And at the Double Eagle Casino south of Shreveport, La., Lee Gibbs, who described himself as a "seventysomething forced retiree" whose employment is "a fond memory," paused from feeding the slot machines to philosophize: "The real hell is that it used to be you had to drive to Nevada or Atlantic City to gamble. Now there are casinos everywhere, but a lot of us don't have jobs and a lot of working people aren't getting by."
Gibbs, who defended Bush as "really a good boy who got in with a bad crowd," took off his cowboy hat and asked if I wanted to invest in his next spin of the slot machine. I declined the offer. "Just kidding," he said. "These casinos are like undertakers. When hope has died, people come here to bury what they have left, their last few dollars."
Senior Editor John Sugg denies he is writing columns about his vacation so that he can deduct the trip from his income taxes. "I'm shocked, shocked I say, at such a suggestion," he says. "Only Republicans do things like that." Sugg can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"I'm buying two Hummers."
Keep your sex life to yourself, buddy.
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